Jesse Owens biopic ‘Race’ not quite a winner
The goal of historical dramas and biopics is often to enhance our understanding of past events and to shine a light on moments that may have dimmed over time. These films can help reshape our understanding of current events we face, adding depth to today’s problems by demonstrating their echoes throughout history. “Race” is the latest of these biopics.
“Race” tells the story of Olympic runner Jesse Owens (Stephan James, “Selma”) and how he won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin games, held in the middle of Nazi Germany. After coming to Ohio State University as one of the first black athletes and facing bigotry from other players and coaches, Owens’s qualification for the Berlin Olympics only augments his struggle to succeed when the NAACP calls on him to withdraw from the games in solidarity with the Jewish people. Attending the games with the hope that defeating Germany will send a greater message, the film explores the politics behind the involvement of the U.S. in the Olympics and the way Owens’s race plays into decisions at levels as large as international relations and as small as congratulatory remarks after a race.
The film addresses race from a vast array of angles, living up to its name and depicting the multifaceted complications that come from tackling such a pervasive and complex subject. From the first time Owens boards the bus to Ohio State for his first semester, we see snide comments from the white women sitting in the front, and these microaggressions escalate to confrontations in the locker room or interactions with other teams’ coaches. Establishing the pervasiveness of racial inequality in Owens’s everyday life sets the floor of the film well. When we do move onto larger issues, such as his decision whether or not to compete in the games, or the prejudices of the German Olympic committee, these are not the only times his race is a point of contention. Additionally, the film ends on a note of continued bigotry in the United States, with a scene of Owens and his wife arriving at a dinner at the Astoria held in his honor and being forced to use the service entrance behind the hotel. The image of the two walking through a bustling, dirty kitchen in elegant evening wear is shocking and honest, ending the film on a sober note.
There’s a huge amount of screen time devoted to interactions between the American Olympic Committee and Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s director of propaganda (Barnaby Metschurat, “L’auberge espagnole”), as the two angrily argue over Germany’s treatment of the American athletes, both Black and Jewish. What’s interesting about these moments, though, is not just the way these athletes’ ability to compete in the Olympics is based on white officials’ opinions about race, but the way the officials’ power and brutality seem to go hand in hand. Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten, “Game of Thrones”) is problematically seen as more of a heroic, anti-establishment artist, instead of Hitler’s close friend and Nazi supporter.
The instances of camaraderie between athletes on the Olympic team, regardless of race or country, is a powerful inclusion to the story, and one of the most striking moments of the film comes from the on-field friendship between Owens and fellow German competitor Lutz Long (David Kross, “War Horse”). Once Long fouls and disqualifies himself from the long jump, he invites Owens to finish the competition, the two then taking a victory lap together in celebration of the new world record. Looked down upon scornfully by the Nazi officials at the top of the stadium, there is a sense of progress and unity on the field, and a glimmer of hope in the drab landscape of the time.